Beloved Christmas carols: The Holly and the Ivy

Ever wonder why, in this popular carol, there are half a dozen or so verses about holly, but the ivy is mentioned only in the first? Ivy gets its due in any number of carols of the same vintage as The Holly and the Ivy or older, but no one sings them any more. A choir I was in performed one years ago, and I found it totally unremarkable–and near totally forgettable. I can’t answer my question about why ivy gets such short shrift in The Holly and the Ivy, but at least I can explain something about the pairing.

In 15th-century England, during the reign of Henry VI, there was a song called “The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly.” It’s not much of a contest. The refrain goes, “Nay, Ivy, nay. It shall not be, ywis. Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.” Holly, obviously masculine, defeats Ivy in every comparison. It appeared in a few 19th-century collections and remains in The New Oxford Book of Carols more as a historical curiosity than anything seriously likely to be performed very much.

According to this song, holly reigned in a comfortable house while ivy clung to the outside of the house, wishing she were inside. What does that have to do with Christmas?

For one thing, the Medieval mind easily spiritualized the symbolism. Jesus is Lord of the heavenly mansion, to which humans are not yet admitted but hope to be allowed in some time. (Biblically, Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is the bride. Jesus is the masculine to which all else is feminine by comparison.)

For another, both holly and ivy are evergreen. As such, they were symbolically important decorations at Christmas (a winter holiday) for being visibly alive while most plant live appeared dead. The prickle of the holly leaf looks forward to Christ’s crown of thorns, and the red berry to his blood.

In fact, the symbolism of holly and ivy as male and female may date from England’s pagan past. The number of medieval carols that spiritualize the pairing indicates how much it became assimilated into the Christian message.
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As to “The Holly and the Ivy,” the earliest reference I have seen is to a broadside printed in about 1710. The carol might be much older than that, contemporaneous with “The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly” or even earlier. In any event, the words must be older than the familiar tune. It appears that what we know as the first verse was the original refrain and that the refrain we sing nowadays was added much later.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Herry Lawford.

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